Jan. 27, 2005
A good marriage protects widowed from depression
ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Widowed men and women who enjoyed good marriages are less likely than those whose marriages were bad to be depressed four years after their spouse's death.
“A good marriage seems to have a protective impact on surviving spouses while a bad marriage just keeps on making the widowed feel bad even after their spouses are gone,” said University of Michigan graduate student Nina Rhee, who conducted a study with U-M psychologist Toni Antonucci.
Rhee and Antonucci, a professor of psychology and senior research scientist at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR), presented their findings recently at the annual meeting of the Gerontological Society of America. Their analysis was supported by the National Institute on Aging and the John A. Hartford Foundation.
For the study, the researchers analyzed data from the ISR Changing Lives of Older Couples Study, a multi-wave prospective study of spousal bereavement. After conducting initial interviews with 1,532 older married men and women in the Detroit metro area in 1987 and 1988, researchers tracked participant deaths and conducted follow-up interviews with bereaved spouses six, 18 and 48 months afterwards. They also re-interviewed a control group of individuals from the original study who had not lost a spouse.
During the initial interviews, researchers questioned participants about the quality of their relationship and their marriage, and their independence from their spouse, among other issues.
For example, participants were asked: How much does your spouse make you feel loved and cared for? How much is your spouse willing to listen when you need to talk about your worries or problems? Thinking about your marriage as a whole, how often do you feel happy about it? How much do you feel your spouse makes too many demands on you? Is critical of you or what you do? Doesn't treat you as well as you deserve to be treated?
To assess independence, participants were asked to suppose their husband (or wife) was away visiting relatives or friends for a couple of weeks. “Please tell me how true each statement is as it applies to you: I would not know what to do if my spouse were away. If I could not talk to my spouse everyday it would really bother me. I hate being home alone.”
The researchers found that adjustment to widowhood was a dynamic process, with bereaved spouses showing considerable change in their levels of depression in the four years following their loss. Men and women who had positive attitudes about their spouse and marriage at the start of the study were significantly less depressed four years after their spouse's death, while those who had more negative views of their marriage at the start of the study were more depressed four years after being widowed. Those who were more independent in their marriage showed more depression soon after their spouse died, but less depression than highly dependent widows or widowers four years after the loss.
The findings provide further support for the work of the late British psychologist John Bowlby, who maintained that forming, maintaining, and grieving the loss of attachment bonds is an integral part of human behavior “from the cradle to the grave.”
“We believe that in the case of the widowed who were securely attached to their spouses, this attachment provides them with a secure base with which to face life's problems,” Rhee said. “Those who have a secure base and are less dependent on their spouse are more distraught right after their spouse dies. But they have greater resources to develop long-term coping strategies.”
While negative evaluations of their marriage and their partner did not predict depression at baseline or up to a year-and-a-half after the loss, it did have a significant link with depression four years later. "One possible explanation is that widows and widowers realized that they did not have a great relationship or that their spouses were not good to them," Rhee said. "These negative views may not have affected their immediate reaction because of other factors associated with grief. But as their grief decreases, the actual reality of their marriage may have a greater impact on their well-being four years later.
“Right after death you tend to focus on the good qualities of the deceased. But by four years later, you're looking at things more realistically,” Rhee said.
Contact: Diane Swanbrow